A group known as “Ensemble Kalamazoo” recently proved that music can be equal parts silence and sound. The group performed a collection of atonal pieces during a late June concert. Its harpist is Kalamazoo College alumna Eleanor Wong ’12.
Eleanor came to the harp by way of her reluctance for the piano. An early hint: during childhood piano lessons she much preferred to strum the strings inside the instrument rather than finger the keys outside. Not a problem when a musical tradition is as strong as it is in the Wong family. Eleanor’s uncle, Bradley Wong, who attended the June concert, was recently named Western Michigan University’s director of music.
The concert’s compositions sounded like a musical equivalent of the post-war art movement of abstract expressionism. Peter Ablinger’s Weiss/Weisslich 3” (White/Off-White), for example, sounded like a blank white canvas painted white and splashed with a few drops of various colors that seldom coincided.
“It was difficult to play at first,” said Eleanor. And she remarked on the long rehearsal sessions the unorthodox song structures required, “But the emphasis on texture rather than traditional melody and harmony trains your ear in a new way,” she added.
The unorthodox selections featured some fascinating instruments–such as WMU graduate Zachary Boyt’s comb-and-Macbook combination (part of fellow WMU graduate Valeria Jonard’s composition The Broken Harp) that produced a sound that seemed to blend a wind chime and a leaky faucet. The composition’s simplicity and complexity turned on the Boyt’s strumming of the comb, which was amplified by the computer.
“Watching the performance refueled my own artistic opinions,” said Adam Schumaker, an instructor of musical composition at Kalamazoo College. He stressed the importance of experiencing live performances. “Even though I approach music differently, avant-garde performances reinforce what I want to do with music.”
If he, or anyone else, wishes to enjoy Eleanor’s work with “Ensemble Kalamazoo,” then he will have to attend the group’s summer concerts. Eleanor is off to the University of Oregon in August to study arts administration.